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Illustration by Joyce Hesselberth

Harnessing the Power of Emotions

​So, you’re building a security team for your organization. The candidates you’re interviewing all boast stellar résumés, and seem highly intelligent when discussing all aspects of security. Yet, you still have questions. Their professional credentials are impressive, but do they have enough self-awareness to avoid acting like condescending know-it-alls? Do they have sufficient diplomatic skills to work well with the team? If a security crisis hits, do they have the self-control to stay calm and focused? Do they have empathy to avoid maintaining an always-me-first attitude? 

In other words, do they have enough “emotional intelligence” to succeed in your organization?

Emotional intelligence, according to the psychologists who formulated the concept, involves the ability to monitor and discern one’s own and others’ emotions, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking, actions, and interactions with others. High EQ (the common abbreviation for emotional intelligence), which is considered a form of social intelligence, can be a tremendous asset for new employees. It can help them negotiate the quirks, political nuances, and dysfunctional personalities of a new corporate culture. If a job includes management duties, a high EQ can also help them become compelling and trusted leaders.

But determining a candidate’s EQ, especially in the limited time of the recruiting and employee selection process, is an art and not a science. Many hiring managers confuse personality with behavior, says James Abruzzo, an EQ expert and executive recruiter with DHR International and codirector of Rutgers Business School’s Institute for Ethical Leadership. A positive personality can win over an interviewer—“it’s often how we hire people,” Abruzzo says—but it is not a reliable indicator of EQ, or productive behavior. 

Given this, organizational leaders should have a clear idea of the EQ qualities they are looking for to make best use of the employee selection process, says Cathy Norris, a management expert who devised an EQ assessment program. “The question to ask hiring managers is: what specific emotional intelligence qualities will do best in the role that they’re hiring for?” Norris says. “Certain specific skills are correlated with success for different roles.”

To help sort out some key EQ quali­ties and their importance in a workplace setting, Security Management interviewed EQ experts, such as Norris and Abruzzo, as well as veteran security managers who seek out employees with high EQ.​

Intelligent Emotions

Emotional intelligence has become a buzzword in certain business and management circles, yet many admit to only a vague idea of what it actually means. 

As it happens, the EQ story is a relatively recent one, and it begins with house painting. In the summer of 1987, psychologist Peter Salovey asked John Mayer, a friend and fellow psychologist, to help paint his living room. While painting, they chatted about work; specifically, two areas of academic work they were both familiar with: research on emotions and research on intelligence. The two areas were considered separate, and the psychologists started to speculate—were there points of intersection between the two? “Maybe it was the paint fumes,” Mayer later joked in an interview with Salon magazine. 

Those conversations didn’t die, and they decided to write an academic article on the subject. In essence, the two postulated that intelligence and emotion did sometimes intersect. Experiencing and managing emotions, for example, can involve sophisticated information processing and employ a type of formal reasoning. And emotions can also enrich thought; the authors pointed to research that found that the experience of strong feelings can help people perceive fresh alternatives and make better choices. 

In the end, the authors found that there are countless interactions between intelligence and emotion. The ones that make people smarter, that help people make better choices, can be referred to as emotional intelligence.

The article was published in 1999 and, like most academic literature, had a relatively small readership. However, one reader was Daniel Goleman, a trained psychologist working as a science reporter for The New York Times. Goleman was immediately “electrified” by the idea of emotional intelligence, according to an essay posted on his website. He borrowed the concept (with permission, although Mayer has said Goleman’s ideas stray far afield from the original model), used it as a springboard for his own ideas on EQ, and wrote his first book, Emotional Intelligence. 

In his book, and in an influential Har­vard Business Review article he later wrote, Goleman sets out five main traits of EQ: self-awareness, empathy, self-control, social skill, and motivation. 

Published in 1995, the concepts spread quickly, and Goleman’s book eventually became a worldwide bestseller. The term emotional intelligence is now recognized in many languages, including German, Portuguese, Chinese, and Malay. In the United States, firms now conduct EQ assessments and certification programs; the one that Norris completed, the EQ-i 2.0 assessment, expands Goleman’s list of EQ traits to include qualities like optimism and problem solving. Some companies have implemented EQ initiatives: L’Oreal used an assessment process to hire sales people with high EQ, ultimately reporting that the initiative increased company sales by $2.5 million.

And one of the largest studies of emotional intelligence and work performance involved the U.S. military. After its recruiter turnover rate hit 50 percent, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) implemented an EQ initiative. The USAF’s highest performers were assessed; their top EQ skills included self-awareness, assertiveness, empathy, optimism, and problem-solving. The Air Force then assessed for these qualities in hiring new recruiters. After a year, recruiter retention increased by 92 percent, and the U.S. secretary of defense called for other branches of the armed forces to adopt the same assessment procedures.

However, despite the demonstrated link between EQ and business performance, other factors work against the development of EQ, experts say. Back in the 1990s, when EQ concepts were just taking hold, the tech boom was fueling significant growth in the U.S. economy, and some prominent managers were celebrated for their singular focus on bottom-line profits. “We made heroes of certain managers in the ’90s that were cutthroat managers,” Abruzzo says. 

More recently, in many formal educational settings, there is an increased focus on accomplishing tasks and scoring well on tests, and thus less time for exercises and assignments that develop emotional intelligence, says veteran security manager Hart Brown, who is now vice president of organizational resilience for HUB International.   

“In addition, we see in some cases that people are staying in school longer for additional degrees, and may even remain living at home longer,” Brown says. “Therefore, some of the emotional intelligence development starts later in a person’s career.” ​


Of the five key EQ qualities that Goleman discussed in his book, EQ experts and security managers cite three as especially valuable: self-awareness, empathy, and self-control.

Goleman is not the first to tout self- awareness, of course; centuries of sages have prized that attribute as a paramount virtue. But the ancient Greeks knew it was no easy skill to master. When asked about man’s most difficult task, the sage Thales replied, “To know thyself.” (The easiest task, according to Thales, was “To give advice.”)

Abruzzo tells a story that illustrates self-awareness—or lack thereof—in a professional setting. Once, while working on an executive search, Abruzzo was counseling a candidate before she was scheduled to interview with the hiring organization’s search committee. Abruzzo mentioned a somewhat open-ended question the committee was likely to ask, and he advised the candidate to keep her answer to under 15 minutes. 

During the interview, the chairman of the committee did indeed ask the question. The candidate launched into her answer. Twenty-five minutes later, she was still answering the same question. Finally, the chairman cut her off. She did not get the position. 

“Self-awareness is important because the other EQ skills cannot be developed without having this skill. It is foundational to EQ skills,” Norris says. “It will be difficult for an employee to develop or to admit mistakes if they have low self-awareness.” In a workplace context, possessing self-awareness means knowing one’s general behavior patterns in responding to different situations—such as a tendency toward verbosity—and knowing how one’s emotions can influence behavior, she says. 

In the employee selection process, interview questions such as: “what’s a work situation you once experienced that, looking back, you might handle differently now?” can sometimes be revealing, and helpful in measuring self-awareness. “Look for responses that indicate self-awareness and reflection as well as self-regulation…that they recognize the need to be more aware of their emotions like anger or fear,” Norris says. 

In contrast, “Examples of low emotional intelligence would include re­­sponses of blaming others or the circumstances, and not taking responsibility,” she adds. ​


An employee with empathy has the ability to be aware of, understand, and appreciate the thoughts and feelings of coworkers, and is able to see and experience the world from another person’s perspective. Those with empathy are caring toward, and genuinely interested in, others. 

Empathy is necessary for effective collaboration, experts say. Empathetic team members are able to listen to the needs of others, show understanding, and help members feel supported, even when team decisions don’t go their way. “If team members don’t feel that that a teammate listens to their concerns, they can grow resentful toward that teammate, which decreases trust and can negatively impact their ability to work together,” Norris says. 

Such an ability virtually ensures that the employee will work well with teams, experts say. And if the new hire will have supervisory duties, empathy is especially crucial.  “As a manager, empathy is extraordinarily important,” Abruzzo says. “People do extraordinary things for their bosses when they feel they are appreciated.” 

Another reflection of this can be heard when employees talk about “the worst boss I ever had,” he added. They generally says things like “didn’t care about me” much more frequently than “was a terrible salesman.” 

Norris holds a similar view. She cites a recent Gallup report, State of the American Manager, for evidence. The report found that employees who give a five (on a five-point scale, with five being the highest) to the statements, “I feel I can talk with my manager about nonwork-related issues” and “I feel I can approach my manager with any type of question” are more engaged than employees who give the same statements a four or lower. 

In the employee selection process, sometimes an open-ended interview question such as, “describe a situation where a problem arose on your team, and how you handled it,” can be good for assessing empathy, in that it gives the candidates an opportunity to show they pay attention to how their coworkers are thinking and feeling, experts say. 

Veteran security executive Clint Hil­bert, who has held management positions at Paramount Pictures and General Electric, says he likes to observe interaction during the interview process to assess a candidate’s depth of engagement with others. 

“Often, I will interrupt a candidate’s interview and have him or her introduce themselves to a group within my department,” says Hilbert, who is now CSO of Betafence. “I watch how they interact with others and how they respond to questions. I look to see if they are sincere to those around them, and attentive to the questions being asked.”​


Humans, Abruzzo says, are hard-wired to defend themselves. But in workplace situations, self-control is a valuable attribute. In these tense situations, someone with high EQ does not react immediately, but is able to remain calm, even when provoked. “The idea is to take a beat and not react immediately—to step back and think about it, and understand why that person might be doing it,” he says.

“Most successful executives,” he adds, “never raise their voice.”

Sometimes, self-control can allow an employee to transform the situation into a teaching moment, and turn the attack into something advantageous. “That’s the secret of self-regulation,” Abruzzo says. “Some of us are better than others at it.” 

Norris, who also touts the value of self-control, describes it as the ability to manage and control emotion by actively choosing what to say and do. “It includes proactively managing your responses to emotional triggers,” she says. And recognizing the triggers—what pushes your buttons—is part of self-awareness, Norris adds. 

Self-control is key in the security profession, says Hilbert. “Self-control is a big part of being mature, and in the security profession, having a consistent display of maturity is quite important. There is very little room for horseplay, aggression, sarcasm, or panic,” he explains. 

And given the value of self-control and self-awareness, Brown says it is especially important to gauge these qualities with candidates who are still relatively early in their careers. “Do they have the right mentality to establish a professional presence?” he asks.   

In Abruzzo’s view, an interview question such as, “Can you tell me about a particular situation in the workplace where you were verbally attacked and how you dealt with it?” can be helpful in getting a sense of a candidate’s self-control. ​

Broad Behavorial Assessments

As illustrated above, certain targeted in­terview questions can be effective in trying to assess whether a candidate possesses specific EQ attributes. However, experts and security managers both say it’s also important for hiring managers to keep the wider view in mind, focusing not on a specific individual question, but on a broad interview strategy that results in a revealing discussion.

Brown, for example, says that when he is hiring, he values both the EQ and IQ of a candidate. For all the benefits of EQ qualities, a hiring manager should not shortchange the value of sheer mental horsepower, he argues. “There is more to being an all-star or celebrity leader than being likeable. It also can take intellectual depth,” he says. “…I do not just look for those candidates with high emotional intelligence, we also need those high IQ individuals on staff.”

In addition to assessing for EQ, Brown says hiring managers should also be assessing for job-specific problem-solving skills. “Candidates may also need to be interviewed for intelligence and the ability to use that intelligence in the workplace to solve problems, or executive intelligence,” he says. “It is important to [assess] cognitive ability, by asking the candidate to solve problems that may actually occur in the workplace.”

In Norris’ view, the interview focus should be not so much on discussing the candidate’s technical capacities, but on the interviewees’ experiences, which say a lot about themselves as a candidate. “The best types of questions ask candidates what they’ve done in the past in situations which demonstrate that they used emotional intelligence,” she says. Given this, Norris says she believes it’s wise to “encourage hiring managers to focus more on how they handled a situation or their process for dealing with it, rather than on whether they demonstrated a certain level of technical expertise.”

Hilbert agrees, and adds that as an interviewer, he learns a lot when the question solicits a story that might make the candidate somewhat uncomfortable. “A great way to assess a candidate’s emotional intelligence during an interview,” he says, “is to have a short conversation about embarrassing moments.”

So Hilbert suggests asking a questions such as: “What was the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done in front of a boss, or a group of fellow employees?” Then, listen closely to the answer. Was the embarrassing event caused by the candidate? Does the candidate take ownership of the event? Or, does the candidate emphasize the event was caused by someone else? How did he or she respond to any lingering embarrassment? 

“This is actually my favorite question during an interview,” Hilbert says. “You just never know what’s going to be said!”

The views of Norris and Hilbert touch upon a broader point about assessing emotional intelligence in the employee selection process. Success in doing so depends, at least in part, on the emotional intelligence of the interviewers. It’s up to the interviewers to listen actively, engage with empathy, be aware of their own internal biases, and make the effort to understand the nuances and implications of what’s being said.